We have all done it before. Driving home from an enjoyable evening with friends we start to replay the evening events and conversations in our mind. In the darkness of the night alone with only our own thoughts and the passing headlights we dissect our conversations with the skill of a forensic pathologist. Then, like a deer in those headlights, we freeze as we remember that awkward joke we said or how we completely misunderstood a conversation and misspoke. As we replay that seemingly embarrassing event over and over in our heads it seems to gain a life of its own—growing exponentially every time we reflect on it. The emotions that rise up in us are various: anger at ourselves, shame, guilt, and frustration, and it is at those moments when we feel like we want to pound our hand into the steering wheel and yell at the top of our lungs, “Stupid, Stupid, Stupid!”
This resonates with all of us because everyone has experienced a time in their life when they believe they had said something “stupid.” What we find when we do misspeak is that even if people do notice it they only consider it for a fleeting moment, but we tend to see our own failings like they were daily broadcast on the evening news.
Similarly, in today’s modern academic world you can pay a heavy emotional price for misspeaking. Understandably, in the more rarified air of professional academic papers it is logical that there should be an exactness of language and command of one’s discipline, but this standard of perfection has permeated education all the way down to the elementary student.
Freshmen, by the time they enter Biola, have already been immersed in a culture of what you could call “academic shame.” They have come to believe that a question must be asked in such a way so that it does not expose the fact that they do not already have mastery of the material—even though their class is an introductory one. Even before their freshman year in college most students have been thoroughly trained in the avoidance of such shame.
Much of what drives academic shame is misconstruing academic abilities with moral virtues. Any failure academically is internalized falsely as a mark against our value as a human. We have come to believe that our ability or inability to do calculus (for example) is indicative of our position within humanity. Of course, no one ever says that out loud, but society has put a premium on people with certain intellectual skills (e.g. rocket scientists and brain surgeons).
While certain types of academic endeavors do have more economic value, individuals with those academic skills are no more or less virtuous than a say a welder or a plumber. Nor are they considered in the eyes of God as any different. Last time I checked there was not one type of salvation for plumbers and one for rocket scientists.
There are some things truly worthy of shame such as hurting innocent people and marital infidelity—to name a few. These acts are shameful because they transgress God’s moral laws, and they are antithetical to human flourishing. To think of one’s modern academic—that is getting a “D” on a chemistry test is not the same as stealing from your neighbor. What I often find is that most of us would rather be ashamed of our academic failings than properly ashamed of our transgressions against God.
Education is a means by which we train our rational capacities, but doing poorly on a test is not immoral. So what if you fail your math test? What should you do? It should be seen as an opportunity. Maybe you have learned that you have to study harder. Maybe you need to get some specialized help on the test. Maybe you need to realize that you aren’t going to be a rocket scientist after all, but that does not mean that you are any less valuable in God’s eyes. This may be an opportunity for you to choose to take another academic path such as Systematic or Historical Theology, Philosophy, English Literature or Philosophy of Education, and maybe you can start a blog….